McGill imagines the libraries of the future

Learning is changing. Where we learn, how we learn, our sources of information are all changing rapidly thanks to the mind-boggling amount of information available to us through a keyboard, a computer screen and a mouse. McGill’s Library and Archives has embarked upon an ambitious project to imagine the libraries of the future at the University. Two architectural firms are currently learning about the McGill situation and soliciting feedback from every element of the community – students, faculty, administrative staff – to chart a course ahead.
Libraries-and-Bookstore
A new feasibility study will explore ways to provide more student work spaces in McGill’s libraries and find ways to store thousands of books that haven’t circulated in 25 years.

By Doug Sweet

Learning is changing. Where we learn, how we learn, our sources of information are all changing rapidly thanks to the mind-boggling amount of information available to us through a keyboard, a computer screen and a mouse.

Where bleary-eyed students used to comb through library stacks for sources they could use in essays and projects, today they can find the same information and more from their kitchen table. Where patient and helpful library staff used to point students and researchers to the appropriate card catalogues or sections of stacks, today they are more likely to point the way to an online journals or particularly useful research website.

Very few places in the university have been affected by the advent of the Internet more than the Library. And yet, libraries remain essential places, where students can find quiet space to study, groups can gather to work on projects and, yes, researchers can still find information the old-fashioned way, especially if that information is on the obscure side and not readily available online.

Consider these facts:

  • McGill has the largest and most unique research collection in Quebec and one of the most unique collections in North America.
  • 45 per cent of that collection has not circulated in the past 25 years.
  • It costs $4.26 per book per year to store it on the library shelves.
  • It costs 86 cents per book per year to keep a book in accessible, high-density storage.
  • McGill has study seating available in libraries for 6 per cent of its students.
  • The Association of College and Research Libraries benchmark is 25 per cent of students.

Something’s gotta give.

That’s why McGill’s Library and Archives has embarked upon an ambitious project to imagine the libraries of the future at McGill.

Two architectural firms are currently learning about the McGill situation and soliciting feedback from every element of the community – students, faculty, administrative staff – to chart a course ahead.

“McGill University’s Library system must accelerate its evolution and make an important step forward both physically and virtually in order to meet the evolving teaching, learning and research needs of its community,” according to a document that outlines the scope of the project and its timeline. “Re-thinking the existing Library System will position McGill University as one of the most prominent and accessible research libraries in the world, incorporating the most effective technological advancements to support the unique print and digital collections.”

This is no small undertaking. McGill University Library and Archives comprises a complex network of four downtown campus libraries (Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Schulich Library of Sciences and Engineering, Nahum Gelber Law Library and the Marvin Duchow Music Library) and five sites devoted to rare, special, manuscripts and archives (the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, Rare and Special Collections Library, Archives, Islamic Studies Library and Birks Reading Room). And there is also a library at the Macdonald Campus.

The libraries tend to be severely overcrowded during examination periods and service points for users have evolved in poor locations.

“We are falling behind,” said Colleen Cook, Trenholme Dean of Libraries. “McGill has wonderful collections, and first-rate staff, but we are hampered by an absence of proper, high-density storage space that would allow us to free up room for more study areas in order to better meet our students’ needs.

“We have appreciated very much the financial support students and groups like the Friends of the Library have provided over the years to keep us in the game; but the game is changing and we need to be able to change with it. In fact, we need to lead it.

“We need to be able to envision today the library of tomorrow.”

 

 

Comments on “McGill imagines the libraries of the future”

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    I’m a McGill undergraduate arts student. I use the actual books in the library for my essays extensively – just like all the other students I know in my program.
    This “accessible high-density storage system” mentioned above raises some red flags for me. Does it mean putting all the books in a warehouse only accessible by a robotic arm? Where will this “high density storage area” be? We need to be able to get our books quickly, without waiting days for someone else to get them for us, and without waiting in line behind a bunch of our peers to access this robot arm. Browsing the shelves is critical for finding sources – you find things you didn’t know you needed or that did not turn up in your digital sources.
    Of course not every book is checked out every year. It is part of the collection and needs to be there for those few times it is needed. McGill’s research collection cannot be complete without the inclusion of these important, rare, and extremely specific sources. If McGill needs more money to preserve the books on the shelves, then that is definitely where tuition should be raised. Students pay for access to McGill’s academic resources, namely the specialized knowledge of our professors and the research materials. Everything else is bells and whistles. This article tries to make it seem as if the books are redundant and getting in the way of student needs, but the ultimate reason students are here is to learn from and access the knowledge held in this university.
    Certain kinds of digital sources are useful – namely the journals. JSTOR and the like are easier to use than the paper journals, but only because you’re chasing down short articles. Ebooks are unwieldy compared to physical books in terms of quickly skimming through them in order to determine if they’re useful. Also, you can put bookmarks in paper books for easy reference (it sounds obvious, but when you’re cross-referencing several texts it is so much easier to do it in the physical sphere). Yes, students are using digital resources more, but part of that is because we are being forced to – students are not allowed to request books through interlibrary loan if they are present in a digital form.
    Digital resources also require a consistent connection to McGill’s network. This uses a lot of electricity and makes it more complicated for students to access those materials off campus. You can’t borrow an ebook in the same way – some sections can sometimes be downloaded, and some books can be downloaded for a limited time, but print books solve the problem because the student can simply carry the physical object wherever they need to access it, regardless of the internet/electrical resources available to them.
    Ebooks, in addition to using more electricity than traditional books, cause more eyestrain than traditional media. When students are already spending hours and hours typing their essays, the additional hours spent reading on a computer screen will have physical consequences for scholarly eyesight on the long term. They’re less time-efficient as well because since they exist in an internet space, there’s more room for distraction. The physical page minimizes distractions of this kind. Also don’t forget the time saved with bookmarks. The time it takes for a page to load in an ebook does not exist for physical objects. Switching between texts, revisiting old sources, and moving through a book are all easier to do manually than digitally. These are all obvious details, but we cannot forget these details when the conversation gets collapsed into dollar signs.
    As far as study space is concerned – McGill does not exist in a vacuum. There are hundreds of coffee shops, alternative libraries, and even apartment spaces where students can study (and do). It’s not like students who don’t find a seat in the library just don’t study that day. The space in the library is not a necessary resource in the same way that access to study materials directly impacts the opportunity to explore ideas and expand arguments. It is a higher priority for McGill to provide resources (i.e. easy access to the books) than study spaces. Study spaces are abundant, vast unique research collections like McGill’s are not.
    The companies working on “reinventing the libraries” seem quite concerned with creating “liminal spaces” that are “modern” and “multifunctional.” As we’ve seen with their suggestion to turn Redpath Hall into a reading room (which would sacrifice an important concert, exam, recording, and practice space) any changes made to McGill’s libraries must be made very carefully so that we do not loose the benefits we currently gain from the library spaces as they currently exist.

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    Bookstores as well as libraries aren’t so popular today just like it was 50 years ago. A few decades ago they used to be great source of information. Scholars were looking for inspiration, some material there – it was a real treasure. I know when I was looking for mba admission essay I had to go to the college library and search for tips there. But today the best part of information is digitized and everybody can get access to best libraries in the world, so the magic of bookstores is disappearing.

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